In response to a law passed in the state of Illinois, backed by several Catholic politicians, the bishop of Springfield has delivered a firm response reiterating the constant teaching of the Catholic Church regarding abortion.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki released a decree on Thursday, June 6 declaring that Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan “are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois because they have obstinately persisted in promoting the abominable crime and very grave sin of abortion as evidenced by the influence they exerted in their leadership roles and their repeated votes and obdurate public support for abortion rights over an extended period of time.”
Many Catholics were thankful. They had considered the example of these two men and other Catholic legislators of the Illinois General Assembly to be scandalous, since these legislators have been complicit in similar legislation.
But the decree also received criticism by an equally vocal and large contingent, with some of those voices coming from within the Church itself. This prompts the question: was Bishop Paprocki right to do what he did? Was this decision prudent?
Succession from St. Peter
We can only answer these questions if we first understand the charge given to all bishops across space and time. By virtue of their apostolic office, entrusted to them by Christ, bishops must teach, govern, and sanctify in the Lord Jesus’ name. Looking to the wisdom of the Church on this topic, we shall see how Bishop Paprocki fulfilled all three of these primary responsibilities in the issuing of this decree.
Let’s look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church first, as a “sure norm” of the Faith. While it is true that—by virtue of our baptism—all Catholics, including the laity, possess a share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly offices of Christ, bishops are consecrated for a very particular office:
“To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power” (CCC 873).
We see the first successor of the apostles, St. Matthias, fulfilling this role in Acts 1:12-26, where he specifically fills the office left empty by Judas. Many others consecrated as bishops as the Church has expanded to every corner of the globe from its humble beginnings in the Holy Land. Clearly, this apostolic succession has continued throughout history, as we see Pope Francis is the 265th successor of St. Peter himself.
Sanctifying by Example
So what of these three duties of the bishop, to teach, govern, and sanctify? The triple office of his bishopric is equal in priority. The tradition of the Church teaches that one aspect is not more important than the other, but are all equally vital when leading the faithful of a particular local Church, or diocese. When looking at the teaching office, the Catechism tells us that bishops must “‘preach the Gospel of God to all men,’ in keeping with the Lord’s command.” It tells us bishops are “‘heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers’ of the apostolic faith ‘endowed with the authority of Christ’” (CCC 888).
Furthermore, these successors of the apostles also receive “divine assistance” when they teach in communion with the pope in Rome (CCC 892). Of course, parents, guardians and Catechism instructors also teach the Faith, but each member of the Body of Christ has its own role to play. This is why St. Paul tells us in the First Letter to the Corinthians that the hand cannot say to the foot “I don’t need you”. Bishops fill a very specific and necessary role in the life of the Church.
As for the sanctifying office of the bishop, the Catechism draws heavily from Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
“The bishop is ‘the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood,’ especially in the Eucharist which he offers personally or whose offering he assures through the priests, his co-workers…The bishop and priests sanctify the Church by their prayer and work, by their ministry of the word and of the sacraments. They sanctify her by their example…” (CCC 893)
Regarding the governing office, both the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law are clear that the bishop exercises this power in the name of Christ himself, with the Good Shepherd being a “model of the bishop’s pastoral office”. These vicars of Christ must “govern the particular Churches assigned to them by their counsels, exhortations, and example, but over and above that also by the authority and sacred power’ which indeed they ought to exercise so as to edify, in the spirit of service which is that of their Master” (CCC 894).
The Code of Canon Law is even more explicit on this point:
“Since the Bishop must defend the unity of the universal Church, he is bound to foster the discipline which is common to the whole Church, and so press for the observance of all ecclesiastical laws.
“He is to ensure that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially concerning the ministry of the word [and] the celebration of the sacraments…” (CIC 392).
It’s no wonder that throughout the centuries many men wept when they became bishop! There is a lot of responsibility when assuming this office in the Church! But with Christ, all things are possible, and as they only have this power through Christ himself, he is always ready to help them fulfill the charge they have been given.
Integrity and Clarity
Now that we have a deeper understanding of the three-fold office of the bishop, let’s turn our attention back to the matter at hand with the abortion debate, particularly as it regards the reception of Holy Communion. The critics of Bishop Paprocki’s decree believe he has acted at best imprudently, and at worst, at odds with the gospel. In the statement from the Diocese of Springfield released alongside the decree, Bishop Paprocki quotes Sacred Scripture, reminding us of some sobering words from St. Paul:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
St. Paul makes it clear that the manner in which we receive the Blessed Sacrament may be worthy or unworthy. If we are in a state of mortal sin and still partake of the Eucharist, we commit an even greater sin by receiving It in an unworthy way. But with a myriad of interpretations on this and other passages of Scripture, we see confusion among the faithful.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Bishop Paprocki shows the need for his decree, saying:
“It seems to me that we’ve arrived at a point where we really need to be clear about the teachings of the Church, and an action like this [the release of the decree] is really designed to protect the integrity of our sacraments and the clarity of our teaching.”
An Unperceived Mercy
We must admit that many Catholics and non-Catholics do not know what the Church teaches on the subject of abortion. Thankfully, Bishop Paprocki dives deep into the teaching of the Church on the issue of abortion. He starts with the Didache (written between 90-110 A.D.). Then he follows through all the way to the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis today.
The decree is not just for Senate President John Cullerton and Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan, but for the entire people of God both in Springfield and throughout the universal Church. Politicians and celebrities keep distorting the Catholic Faith. This leads to the faithful having a distorted understanding of that Faith. This is why Bishop Paprocki spoke out. His intention was to lead back those who have wandered away like the politicians. He also saw the need to reiterate the clear teaching of the Church to the faithful. Many of these faithful have bought into (or have become confused after hearing) the lies about our faith that such celebrities and politicians are endorsing.
Bishop Paprocki did exactly what a bishop ought to do. He is teaching the Faith as has been handed down by the apostles. The bishop of Springfield is sanctifying his flock by protecting the integrity of the sacraments. He is not allowing these politicians to enter into further sin by receiving the Eucharist unworthily. (This is in accord with the Church’s law in Canons 915 and 916.)
Bishop Paprocki is also governing by issuing the decree in the first place. He makes it clear that he will not tolerate such behavior by Catholics in his diocese. Especially on a public scale, failing to uphold Church teaching leads to intolerable scandal. Bishop Paprocki is making it clear the Eucharist will not be made subject to sacrilege. We can only hope more bishops follow suit.
To Teach, Sanctify, and Govern
Unfortunately, this issue of enforcing the Church’s law regarding the reception of Communion is causing division in the Church instead. In an article posted by Catholic News Agency (CNA), another bishop from Illinois, Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, voiced his opinion on the recent passing of the abortion law. While he rightfully observes that the new law “says that human life is cheap in the State of Illinois”, he also commented that “it would be counterproductive to impose sanctions [on Holy Communion], simply because they don’t change anybody’s minds, but it also takes away from the fact that an elected official has to deal with the judgment seat of God, not just the judgment seat of a bishop. I think that’s much more powerful.”
Cardinal Cupich also told CNA:
“I have always approached the issue saying that the bishop’s primary responsibility is to teach, and I will continue to do that.”
These comments are concerning as we see two bishops, in the same state, with dramatically different views on the bishop’s role in protecting the integrity of the sacraments. As seen above, in addition to teaching, the bishop is to sanctify and govern. St. John Paul, as well as the Second Vatican Council, were clear about this. In a general audience he delivered in 1992 (click here for English translation), the saintly pontiff quotes extensively from the Council’s Christus Dominus (emphases mine):
“’Individual bishops who have been entrusted with the care of a particular church—under the authority of the Supreme Pontiff—feed their sheep in the name of the Lord as their own ordinary and immediate pastors, performing for them the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing’ (CD 11). Bishops’ jurisdiction over the flocks entrusted to them is thus proper, ordinary and immediate.”
Witnesses of Christ
Given the teaching and tradition of the Church, can we honestly say that Bishop Paprocki did something improper? It would appear not. The entire point of Bishop Paprocki’s decree was to teach the faithful. That is, after all, the bishop’s “primary responsibility”, in Cardinal Cupich’s words. What Bishop Paprocki’s critics are implying is that his decree was not teaching. They’re implying that it’s simply an imposition of “sanctions” which don’t change any minds. This is a gross misrepresentation of what Bishop Paprocki has done. Additionally, what evidence do we have that these actions won’t change any minds?
Could it not change the minds of those on the fence about the abortion issue, who after reading the clear instruction presented by Bishop Paprocki come to understand the grave immorality of abortion? Of course it could. To flatly state that such a decree won’t change any minds is highly presumptuous. That statement doesn’t leave much room for the Holy Spirit to work real conversion. Again, St. John Paul is clear on how the bishop is to act in situations like the one we’re seeing in Illinois:
“[T]he mission of bishops is presented in its institutional, spiritual and pastoral value, in relation to the various conditions and states of the people entrusted to them, as follows: ‘Bishops,’ the Council states, ‘should dedicate themselves to their apostolic office as witnesses of Christ before all men. They should not only look after those who already follow the prince of pastors but should also wholeheartedly devote themselves to those who have strayed in any way from the path of truth or are ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and his saving mercy, until finally all men walk ‘in all goodness and justice and truth’ (Eph. 5:9)’ (CD 11). Bishops, therefore, are called to imitate the ‘Son of Man,’ who ‘came to seek and to save what was lost’ (Lk. 19:10), as Jesus said during his visit to Zacchaeus’ house. It is the very essence of their missionary vocation.”
Pray God Leads Them Home
As a parent, I despise having to be harsh with my children. But I have their best interests at heart, and when boundaries become continually tested and stretched, there has to be action. I can tell them all day that what they are doing is wrong, but am I a good parent if I allow them to persist in bad behavior, especially if the older children are giving a bad example to the younger children? Even in my own household, I am entrusted to sanctify and govern those within it (see CCC 902). How much more so for bishops! In an interview on EWTN’s The World Over, Bishop Paprocki explicitly states that he hopes those straying politicians who voted for such legislation over the years come to a true conversion of heart. When asked point blank if the decree will change the minds of the politicians, he answers candidly:
“I hope it will. It’s ultimately a call for conversion. That’s my most fervent hope here. I’m not trying to punish somebody and say this is a permanent situation and [they] can no longer ever go to Communion. It’s a medicinal remedy in a sense that I hope that this will be a call to conversion, a call to change of heart.”
Christ is our hope, and we put our trust in him that he will lead wandering souls back to full Communion. We as Christians must care about the salvation of our brothers and sisters. Prelates like Bishop Paprocki clearly have this in mind, and I share in his hope that these men and women who have obstinately and persistently campaigned for abortion “rights” fully convert to Christ very soon.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.